Card Shark

Where are your old baseball cards?

I know, silly question. In this interactive era of Madden on your Xbox and madmen chewing buffalo bladders on your TiVo, spreading out sedentary sports cards on your bedroom floor sounds about as entertaining as playing Marco Polo with Helen Keller. Marco!... Marco!... Marco?!

Besides, most of us stopped collecting when we hit puberty. Some--honest--traded their cards for that Farrah Fawcett poster and a hot new 8-track called Foreigner 4. Some dumped cards for Beanie Babies. Some might still have them in a box in the attic, under the (first) wedding album, next to the Pet Rock.

But then there are geeks like Barry Scott who, defiant of the latest fads and his leaking finances, kept on buyin' and rippin'. Box after box. Pack after pack. Week after week. And what do you know? He knows exactly where his baseball card is.

It's on eBay, about to net him $100,000.

"In the back of your mind you know pulling a great card is possible," Scott said last week at the Dallas headquarters of collectibles king Beckett Media. "But I've always collected for the fun of it. As a hobby, not a living. This is all just too surreal."

Scott, 26, was desperate for a life preserver--small, rectangle or otherwise--when he walked into his buddy's card shop on November 9. Having recently moved from Chicago to tiny Guntown, Mississippi, to take care of his homebound father, Barry struggled to find a job, much less direction. In nearby Tupelo he delivered pizzas for Domino's before settling for a part-time gig in information technology at Cooper Tires.

"Fancy name for inputting time cards," Scott says with a chuckle.

His 64-year-old father, Gene, suffers from diabetes and heart disease. With feathered hair, glasses and a body like a 10-pin--think old Royals slugger Bob Hamelin--Barry doesn't recall his last date. In early November, he blogged about being severely depressed.

"Everything was looking pretty bleak," Barry admits. "I have lots of debt and, really, no plan to get moving forward."

His weekly excitement? Updating an Excel spreadsheet on the purchases of prescription drugs from Canada for Dad. Bowling with his buddies. And, oh yeah, spending every last penny on his 18-year, 3,000-card collection previously highlighted by Hall-of-Famers Rollie Fingers and Willie Stargell.

At his favorite shop, Sportscards, he plunked down $105 for a box of Upper Deck SP Legendary Cuts cards. In the box are 12 packs, each containing four cards.

Talk about instant gratification.

As soon as Barry opened the first pack at approximately 4:45 p.m., he spotted a plastic protective sleeve. When he pulled out the 1 of 1 card, it was none other than the authenticated signatures of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Weak in the knees, Barry sat down and turned the card over. Looking for authenticity, he instead got more autographs, these from Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner.

He screamed repeatedly, "Holy shit!"

One card, four signatures--all from baseball's inaugural Hall of Fame class of 1936. Collecting the autographs separately would, according to Beckett, cost $18,000. Making the card even more unique, Wagner's signature was cut from a wedding invitation and affixed to the baseball card, and Cobb's--signed "Tyrus"--came straight from a check.

Tupelo, Mississippi--birthplace of Elvis; re-birthplace of Barry.

Said Scott, "Please don't wake me up."

What do you do when you've just pulled a card that will change your future?

Go bowling, of course.

Scott convinced store owner Anthony Patterson to join him and baby-sit the card while he bowled. And with that, one of the most valuable baseball cards in history spent its first free hours in a bowling ball bag down at Rebel Lanes.

"Well, I couldn't just leave my team hangin'," says Barry, who did disappoint his Spare Me teammates by bowling "well under" his 140 average. "I did good to break 100."

That night Scott posted his pull on Beckett's Internet message board. The next day he got a call through Patterson about an investor in Columbus, Mississippi, willing to pay $50,000 on the spot.

"I went to bed thinking it was a done deal," Scott says after a Snookie's hamburger and Jack-and-Coke. "Initially I thought I'd keep it and pass it down to my kids. But then you think about $50,000 being wired to your checking account and...Luckily, the guy got cold feet and backed out."

Next came a call from Beckett baseball editor Pepper Hastings. Scott was immediately on a plane to Dallas and en route to doubling his profit.

"Just getting to come [to Beckett] would've been cool enough," says Scott, who transported the card in a velvet pouch worn around a necklace and under two shirts. "I went out for a smoke and bumped into Dr. Beckett himself. I'm like Charlie in the chocolate factory."

Founded in '84 by former SMU statistics guru James Beckett, the company has yet to produce its first card but is nonetheless the $275 million sports collectibles industry's final word. Beckett grades cards, produces 14 monthly publications and puts out price guides--the card equivalent of Kelley Blue Book for cars. Its two-story building at the Tollway and Keller Springs Road is as much a mecca as a workplace, with former Red Sox great Fred Lynn walking in unannounced, actor Chuck Norris leasing space and countless fans showing up to have their cards graded.

"We knew immediately we had a tiger by the tail," Hastings says. "But I never expected this. People plan vacations around a chance to walk through the doors, like some sort of pilgrimage. I think they expect to find Dr. Beckett in the back with test tubes and beakers."

Beckett paid for Scott's flight and hotel and is housing his card in a vault. (It's in mint condition despite a journey from Upper Deck headquarters in Carlsbad, California, to within 40 miles of being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.) Most important, it lends credibility to his sale.

Says Hastings, "When a guy pulls a card like this, the vultures circle. We just wanted to make sure he gets a fair shake."

How's this for fair? With the auction set to close Saturday, bidding Tuesday was already up to $90,000.

"This isn't going to define my life," Barry says. "But it's going to help me turn my life around. I'm going to pay off my debt, give my family a great Christmas, go back and finish college. Yeah, maybe spend a couple of bucks on a couple more packs."

So where are your old baseball cards?

Maybe buried with a stale piece of gum. Or perhaps a sacred piece of history.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt